Every year around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the news media start quoting his “I Have A Dream” speech. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great speech – certainly one of the best ever given in the cause of civil rights.
However, this laser-like focus on one speech closes off talk about the rest of King’s career. In the interest trying something different, I decided to check out the events in King’s life on December 18, 1963. That is the day he spoke and answered questions at Western Michigan University.
It’s important to give some context. The Western Michigan speech came at the end of one of the most tumultuous years in King’s life. That spring, the 34-year-old King had led the campaign to integrate Birmingham’s stores, restaurants, and schools. Victory there cemented his reputation as the country’s top civil rights leader. “The only thing uncertain about [the death of segregation],” he told his Western Michigan audience, “is how costly the segregationists will make the funeral.”
Yet Birmingham was just the start of King’s 1963. In June, he led 125,000 on a Freedom Walk in Detroit. That August, he gave the “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington with nearly 250,000 in attendance. In September, he gave the heartbreaking eulogy for four girls killed by a terrorist bomb in Birmingham. And just a month before the Western Michigan speech, Americans were rocked by news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
It’s also important to understand what had not happened yet. Jim Crow remained the law in most of the South – the Civil Rights Act was still about six months away from passage. And King’s Nobel Peace Prize was still another year away.
Though conformity still reigned on campus in the early 1960s, King urged the Western Michigan students to think in new ways.
. . . there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of goodwill will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.
In the question-and-answer period that followed, the moderator asked King tough questions about affirmative action, the prospect of race riots, the effectiveness of non-violent protests, and about integrating schools.
I lean toward the view that it is a very tragic thing for young people, children, to grow up [in] association, communication [with] only people of their race. Prejudices develop from the very beginning because of this. Narrow provincial views emerge because of this. I think the only way to break this kind of provincialism is to bring people together on a level of genuine inter-group and interpersonal living.
King was also asked about critics’ accusations that he was incompetent and a publicity hound. He gave a straightforward reply that still manages to echo down the ages.
The minute you act and take a stand against an unjust system, the individuals in the privileged group are going to resist to the end, and they are going to say nasty things about you. They’re going to say you’re doing it for publicity, but we can’t stop for that reason. We’ve got to go on to redeem the soul of our nation. The only way that we can do this is to go out and solve this problem.
King left that night to thunderous applause.
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